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Woolworth’s Cathedral

April 2024
6min read

It wasn’t enough for Woolworth that his monument be grand and useful and beautiful—he wanted it to be profitable too.

Ever since technology began to permit it, men of power have sought immortality in stone. Knowing that their deeds, however important, were ephemeral in the nature of things, they hoped that their tombs and statues and palaces might remind the world of their greatness. Shelley, in his haunting sonnet on Ozymandias, showed the essential barrenness of this idea, but that hasn’t stopped men in the least from erecting monuments to their own memories.

Before the Industrial Revolution, politics and military conquest were the main roads to power. With the advent of the steam engine the instruments of choice by which men sought power began to change, as did the means by which they displayed it. The opportunities for military conquest shrank nearly to the vanishing point, but the opportunities to make a great fortune in business vastly expanded.

As early as 1868 James Gordon Bennett noted in the New York Herald how much things had changed and yet stayed the same. “Men no longer attempt to rule by the sword,” he wrote in an editorial, “but they find in money a weapon as sharp and more effective; and having lost none of the old lust for power they seek to establish over their fellows the despotism of dollars.”

If the vast wealth created by the Industrial Revolution never quite amounted to a “despotism of dollars,” it certainly allowed the building of an unprecedented number of monuments to the glory of the creators of the new fortunes. The building of a suitable palace was usually the first step. The parade of mansions that slowly marched up New York’s Fifth Avenue in the nineteenth century, each grander and more elaborate than the last, was a fantastic and now largely lost example.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was, in his day, the king of kings of American railroading and the richest self-made man in the world. He was quite comfortable living downtown in his relatively modest house on Washington Place and left Fifth Avenue to his children and grandchildren. But he couldn’t entirely resist the temptation to immortalize himself. In 1869 he built a new freight warehouse in lower Manhattan for his New York and Hudson River Railroad, and he arranged for a grand monument to himself to be part of it. It amounted to nothing less than his autobiography, written in one hundred thousand pounds of bronze. The pediment of the building, thirty feet high and one hundred fifty feet long, was filled with depictions, in high relief, of Vanderbilt’s career in ships and railroads. These flanked a central statue of the Commodore himself, fully twelve feet high and weighing four tons.


Even before it was unveiled, the astonished observer from the Herald noted that “it is not so prodigious as the Pyramid of Cheops, nor so lofty as the Colossus of Rhodes, but it will do.” (Vanderbilt’s monument, alas, has also suffered the fate of Ozymandias’s. Today only the central statue survives, placed high on the south facade of Grand Central Terminal.)

Happily for ordinary mortals, Vanderbilt’s expression of his egotism in bronze was an exception among nineteenth-century plutocrats. Instead of erecting statues to themselves, these men of fortune largely sought to attach their names to things that were both grand and useful, serving the public as well as the vanity of their creators. New York City alone is filled with these efforts. Carnegie Hall, Cooper Union, Rockefeller University, Paley Park, and the Whitney and Guggenheim museums are just a few.

But Frank Winfield Woolworth, the greatest merchant of his day, was, like Vanderbilt, an exception among the monument builders of the Gilded Age. And like Vanderbilt, he was not much given to charity. He had made a great fortune a nickel at a time, and he was accustomed to watching those nickels carefully. Worth sixty-five million dollars, he was perfectly willing to keep his office staff late while he tracked down an unaccounted-for quarter missing from his change purse.

For Woolworth it wasn’t enough that his monument be grand, like Vanderbilt’s bronze, or grand and useful, like Carnegie’s concert hall. It wasn’t even enough that it be grand and useful and beautiful, like the New York Public Library. Woolworth wanted his monument to be all that and profitable too. The man who invented the five-and-dime had every intention of building a moneymaking monument to carry his name down through the ages.

Woolworth’s genius had been in seeing the possibilities in the low end of retailing. In 1879 he had set out on his own with $410 and opened a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He stocked it with “Yankee notions,” the thread and needles and cheap tin cookware that peddlers had carried around rural America before the coming of the railroads. Nothing in Woolworth’s store cost more than a nickel, and it was an immediate success. By the end of the next year he had two stores (and had raised his price limit to ten cents, hence the “five-and-dime”). By 1889 he had 12; by 1899, 54. In 1909 he owned 238 stores, and his was the best-known name in American retailing.

While Woolworth was by then an enormously rich man, he was dissatisfied. His name was associated with good value and utility, but it was also, inevitably, associated with cheap goods, and Woolworth was sensitive on the subject. When the company moved into new and luxurious offices in New York in 1905, Woolworth exulted that “the five and ten cent business is no longer a Cheap John affair.” But the offices were rented, not owned by the company. Woolworth wanted his own building, one grand enough to proclaim to the world the glory of his name. Although he thought the Houses of Parliament in London to be the most beautiful building complex in the world and wanted his to be likewise in the Gothic style, Woolworth also wanted his building to be one of the new skyscrapers.

By the end of the nineteenth century two technologies, steel construction and the electric elevator, had come together and made the skyscraper possible. Masonry buildings cannot be much more than ten stories high because the necessary thickness of their walls is a function of their height. But steel could soar to the sky. When the electric elevator was introduced in 1889 and made unlimited vertical transportation possible, buildings in New York, in Chicago, and elsewhere began to do exactly that.

At the turn of the century a new world’s-tallest-building was going up every few years, and the word skyline entered the English language in 1896. By 1910 the world’s tallest was the Metropolitan Life Tower on New York’s Madison Square, seven hundred feet high and modeled after the campanile in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square.

Woolworth began to buy land on Broadway, across from the southern tip of City Hall Park, and he hired the architect Cass Gilbert, whose Gothic-style design for a building at 90 West Street he admired. At first Woolworth envisioned a building of moderate height, at least by skyscraper standards, perhaps twenty-five stories. Under Gilbert’s prodding, however, Woolworth’s ideas began to expand. The architect sent a surveyor out to find out exactly how tall the Metropolitan Life Tower was and then told his employer how high he had to go in order to have the world’s tallest building bear the name of Woolworth. Woolworth was aware of the advertising value and soon went along with the idea. Gilbert ended up designing a building 792 feet tall. Completed in 1913, it held the altitude record for fully sixteen years until it was finally surpassed by the Chrysler Building in 1929.

Woolworth, who knew a great deal about retailing but little, if anything, about building skyscrapers, supervised everything closely anyway, making a thorough pest of himself with Gilbert and Louis Horowitz, the contractor. At one point he even suggested that since Gilbert and Horowitz were lucky to be connected with so prestigious a building, they should cut their fees. (Needless to say, they did no such thing.)

Woolworth was especially interested in cost control, perhaps because he owned the building personally, intending to rent space in it to the Woolworth Company, the Irving National Bank, and others. And he paid for the entire project in cash, $13,500,000 in all. The building—unique among New York skyscrapers—has never been mortgaged. But while Woolworth, as always, watched his nickels carefully, he was not afraid to spend as many as necessary to get top quality.

And top quality is exactly what Frank Woolworth got. No sooner was his building finished than he had the satisfaction of having it universally acclaimed a masterpiece. Gilbert had followed Louis Sullivan’s dictum that a skyscraper should be “a proud and soaring thing,” and Montgomery Schuyler, the leading architecture critic of his day, was dazzled: “How it cleaves the empyrean and makes the welkin ring as it glitters in the sunshine of high noon,” he wrote. “How impressively it looms above its fellows in spectral vagueness, in the gray of the dawn or the haze of twilight.”

No one has quibbled since. Today’s leading architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, says that the Woolworth Building “has an almost Mozartian quality to it, a sense of light, graceful detail applied to a firm and self-assured structure.” It is now a New York City landmark, and there can be few New Yorkers who do not hope that the curse of Ozymandias will long pass it by.

Woolworth must also have been delighted that his building immediately became world-famous and one of New York’s foremost tourist attractions, depicted on countless postcards. The building was visited by two hundred thousand people a year who paid to see the view from its observation level. (Now atop what is only New York’s eleventh-tallest building, the observation deck has been closed for many years.) But I suspect that what made Woolworth happiest of all was that his “Cathedral of Commerce,” grand and useful and beautiful as it was, immediately began to yield him a good, solid 6 percent return on his investment.

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